When we rang in the new year from our respective parts of the world, no one could have predicted that 2020 would bring with it a deadly pandemic, worldwide protests, and more. With all of that came exorbitant amounts of stress for everyone and it’s clear that we’re all struggling to cope in one way or another.
Moderated by Jeff Trexler, Comic Con’s “Crazy” Talk: Mental Health, Pop Culture, and the Pandemic panel boldly addressed this topic among creatives and professionals within the industry who have witnessed and experienced the positive outcomes pop culture can bring to people during stressful times. Panelists shared their experiences as both fans of pop culture and professionals in the industry, what it has been like for them as creators to connect with their supporters, and the power of creative and artistic content.
For geeks far and wide, this exploration of how pop culture and media can help to sustain us, especially in the era we presently live in, is worth keeping in mind as we move forward and face the unknowns of tomorrow.
The Importance of Community
One of the most important aspects to have come from pop culture is the community that is formed amongst content creators and fans and the positive role such fellowship plays in people’s lives.
Patrick Tatopoulos, a production designer who has worked on films including Batman v. Superman and Justice League, explains witnessing the creation of community when people grab onto the pop culture media that means something to them, for instance, superheroes, and connect with the work and other individuals who feel the same. “I feel it’s bigger than us, it’s way bigger than I am … it’s a very living thing.”
(San Diego Comic Con and cosplay is one of the many ways fans can create communities over their shared fandoms.)
To him, it’s more about what comes out of the movie than the superhero or actual movie itself. And communities that are created is one of those outcomes that’s been especially impactful and helpful to people especially now when people are spending so much time at home.
I’m on social media and I see how people interact and how you become a part of that and that’s amazing,” he says. “And at times you feel very lonely, this is one way to obviously open up and feel that you are still part of a big community and exchanging ideas and talking and staying social in some way … and in some ways, I think that’s fantastic.
Senior Editor at Valiant & Image Heather Antos agrees, recalling how she has noticed ways community members in the comic book industry have rallied together to lift up and help out artists, writers, and others who have fallen ill and providing financial assistance and other forms of aid.
She says, “It’s not only the characters and worlds that we love but we love the community and we need this community, it’s a family. And as horrible and awful as this whole time has been, it’s so empowering to see each other come together in a time when we can’t physically come together.”
The Role of Pop Culture and its Impact
Joseph P. Illidge, writer and creator of Heavy Metal and Humanoids, believes that the facilitation and creation of stories is more important now than ever before.
I think people now as a captive audience are getting a deeper understanding of how much story is a necessary part of our psychological and emotional diet. We need narratives to keep us going, we need narratives to give us hope.
As we live in a time of what he calls a “perfect storm” as the world faces a pandemic, anti-Black racism, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community and more, he feels “it behooves us to use this opportunity to be absolutely unafraid as human beings with our viewpoints.” He urges creators to remove any shackles they feel they have. “You must take them [shackles] off. This is not the time for limitations anymore.”
Bryan Edward Hill, writer for DC comics and Netflix, believes that pop culture is where people are getting their ethics, ideas and philosophy from, which speaks to the immense impact pop culture has on today’s world. He feels that content creators, therefore, have an obligation to not only tell stories that reflect ethics but to also put those ethics into practice in their own lives.
If you are charged with telling stories about ethical characters, about superheroes, I think you have the responsibility to manifest those ethics in other ways. … I think you just have a responsibility to uphold the ethics that you’re writing.
It’s not only the content that has an impact but the creators themselves play a huge role in shaping the very ideas fans adopt as their own in their lives.
What Stories Can Teach Us
If pop culture is a source from which people can learn, in that vein, there are many lessons that hero stories can impart to those who consume them. This includes lessons on empathy and what you can do as the average person without superpowers to make the world a better place.
These important messages are why Antos thinks pop culture is so important at this time. “That’s why these stories are so relevant and so powerful and very much needed right now.”
“You don’t have to be Superman to be a hero,” says Praveen Kambam, MD, a forensic psychologist with Broadcast Thought. “You can do a small thing and I think that’s really a great message.”
Ordinary, mild-mannered Clark Kent can do things Superman can’t do. (Photo Credit: DC Comics)
His colleague, Vasilis K. Pozios, MD, likewise believes that people look to heroes as a guiding light who can inspire “ordinary people to do extraordinary things”.
Illidge also provides a nuanced take on what a hero in a story should be like.
“Heroes have to be broken so they can be as human as we need them to be and when they rise back up, we can rise back up with them”, he says. “Their stories remind us that we can come back from a fall, that we’re all gonna go through a dark night of the soul. And when we come out of it, we can only hope that we come out of it better, we can only hope that we come out of it wiser.”
Life Imitates Art
In addition to telling the stories of heroes, panelists shared anecdotes on how they are being heroes in their own lives and what they are doing to help and inspire others. Hill finds ways to connect with others via social media and in his daily life to acknowledge and honor their lived experiences and tries to make people’s day a little better and easier.
“For me, it’s been about paying attention and being more present and not taking for granted the little things I can do as a human being to make things a little easier for people,” says Hill. “I feel like … if we all just thought about what exists within my radius right now that I can just make a little better? I think if we did that it would help things in a really profound way.”
Antos herself is open about her own mental health struggles online and uses herself as an example for others as she shares her journey and how she rises from her low moments. She offers:
“If I can share my struggles but show that I can still be successful and climb the mountain, either by myself or with the support that I have … to maybe be a beacon of hope or silver lining for someone else, if that’s the least that I can do, then yes I’m gonna do that.”
And, with the knowledge that creativity and art contribute positively to one’s wellbeing, Tatopoulos and his wife, McKenzie Westmore, have been encouraging fans everywhere to be creative and make art while we’re having to stay home these days. “Creativity is another release from the strife we live in. It’s something important.”
And most importantly, Tatopoulos reminds us that you don’t need to be a professional to be creative, you just need to have fun.
The Future of Mental Health Representation
So what will mental health look like in pop culture going forward? Based on the slow but steady progress we’re seeing, the future looks bright. As mental health issues are becoming more normalized in the content we consume and are being reflected back at us through the lens of fictional heroes, the stigma they once carried is shrinking. No longer are mental health struggles being associated solely with story villains but they’re being depicted as a natural part of life that many people all across the globe face.
Illidge hopes that the narratives surrounding mental health will be increasingly diversified to accurately reflect people’s realities, saying,
“In terms of how mental health will hopefully be communicated in our stories going forward and in the next decade, it’s that we won’t think that mental health is a one-size-fits-all thing. … Because right now, for the most part, we’ve been getting the one story [of what mental health issues look like].”
He adds, “We need more specific examples across culture, across age, disabled people, gender identification, we need to get into the entire prism of what mental health is.”
According to Hill, perceptions of mental health have thankfully shifted to a more positive place. There’s obviously still a long way to go yet, but hope is certainly on the horizon.
“It’s really heartening to see that change is happening,” says Pozios.
That’s good news for us all and not a moment too soon.